SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket launch creates temporary hole in Earth's Ionosphere
A Falcon 9 rocket launched by Elon Musk's aerospace company SpaceX on July 19, pierced a temporary hole in the ionosphere, a crucial layer of Earth's atmosphere. The rocket took off from the Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. After the launch, observers in Flagstaff, Arizona, witnessed a faint red glow in the sky, which indicated that the rocket had punctured the ionosphere, media reports said.
Boston University's Space physicist Jeff Baumgardner reportedly told spaceweather.com, "This is a well studied phenomenon when rockets are burning their engines 200 to 300 km [around 120 to 190 miles] above Earth's surface."
"I reviewed footage from the July 19th launch," says Baumgardner. "It shows the second stage engine burning at 286 km [178 miles] near the F-region peak for that time of day. So, it is quite possible that an ionospheric 'hole' was made," he added.
The ionosphere is a region where space begins, approximately 50 to 400 miles above the Earth's surface. It contains charged particles known as ions and plays a role in creating auroras (also known as the Northern Lights or Southern Lights, are mesmerising natural light displays that illuminate the night skies near the Earth's polar regions) during geomagnetic storms.
How do rockets affect Ionosphere?
Fast-moving rockets and their exhaust fumes can alter the ionization of the ionosphere.
When rockets release water and carbon dioxide, the local ionization can decrease by up to 70 per cent, particularly in the F-layer of the ionosphere.
The interaction between oxygen ions and rocket exhaust results in the distinctive red colour seen in the ionospheric hole, resembling red auroras.
Notably, in 2017, a rocket launch caused a 560-mile-wide hole that lasted for several hours. These ionospheric disruptions have minor impacts on GPS systems, slightly altering location accuracy.
Charles C.H. Lin of the National Cheng Kung University in Taiwan told Ars Technica news portal in 2018, "Without considering the rocket launch effects, there are errors from the ionosphere, troposphere and other factors that will produce up to 20-meter [65-foot] errors or more."
"Humans are entering an era that rocket launches are becoming usual and frequent due to reduced cost by reusable rockets," Lin said. "Meanwhile, humans are developing more powerful rockets to send cargo to other planets. These two factors will gradually affect the middle and upper atmosphere more, and that is worthwhile to pay some attention to."